At a seminar on innovation and initiatives last week, the common theme among the speakers, all successful businessmen who had no subsidies and government contracts to rely on, was about the comfort zone which many Malaysians are still trapped in.
They were concerned, even alarmed, that while China and India – with their huge pool of trained and hardworking workers – were already competing strongly, many Malaysians had still not woken up to face the changes.
Air Asia group chief executive officer Tony Fernandes, who took over a debt-ridden airline and turned it into a profitable company within five years, is certainly someone our economics and business management students should listen to.
The accountancy graduate spoke about how he had to mortgage his house and borrowed from friends to start a dream – owning an airline – even though he knew nothing about aviation. But the difference was that he dared to take risks.
More important, Fernandes is a prudent man and he runs his company like his no-frills flights. He does not put on a necktie and he often rolls up his sleeves to sit at the check-in counter to keep track of the situation on the ground.
Easily one of the richest men in Malaysia, Fernandes does not have a driver and he jokes about how the security guards still stop him occasionally, thinking that he is a Bangladeshi worker.
With no political connections, Fernandes relates how he had to face the bureaucracy, powerful competitors, an unhappy Singapore government, SARS and the effect of the Sept 11 incident. But his company is today listed on Bursa Malaysia – all in five years.
Then, there is low-profile Penang businessman Chan Hong Saik. The e-Business Sdn Bhd chief executive officer travels around the world selling his homebred technology system to international clients like IBM, Citigroup and Deutsche Bank.
He has to convince the big clients to buy his products. He has done all this alone, with no assistance from anyone and certainly no subsidies.
But he lamented about the mindset of our graduates, especially the lack of competitive spirit and, worse, their poor command of the English language. Many e-mail and letters, he said, contained serious grammatical errors.
He shared an anecdote of how he called for a meeting with a group of fresh graduate workers. After his motivating words, he told his listeners "to get the ball rolling". One young man quickly put up his hand and asked, "Sir, where is the ball?"
"During my student days, when someone had three or five distinctions in an exam, it was considered very good. Now, we have people with 15 or 16As but where are they?" he asked.
Similar sentiments were expressed by scientist Dr Ishwar S. Parhar, who now teaches at the Nippon Medical School in Tokyo and Rockefeller University in New York. He spoke about the lack of personnel and expertise, questioning the wisdom of retiring scientists and academicians at 55 years old when Malaysia was facing a serious shortage of scientists.
He urged the scientific community to compete to have their findings published in international journals if they wanted recognition. The St Xavier's Institution old boy was too polite to say it but the fact is that it would be useless for any Malaysian university to publish a journal, for any discipline, if they were only read at home.
Worse, there is little point in winning awards, whether local or international, if these competitions were not recognised by the international academic community. It would merely be a case of syiok sendiri and pulling the wool over the eyes of Malaysians who have little information on these competitions.
The timing could not have been more perfect. Last week, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi correctly said that for Malaysians to be a developed nation, it must rid itself of three addictions – cheap foreign labour, subsidies and favours or connections.
Malaysians, he said, seemed to think that someone else, at the very least the government, owes them a living but he warned that the government could no longer sustain the cost of maintaining such "props" to competitiveness.
In what has been regarded as his strongest speech so far, the often diplomatic leader said that "the treasury's coffers were limited and with other countries becoming more competitive and innovative, it would be more difficult to rely on such strategies for incomes to grow".
But Abdullah has a huge task ahead to convince those who do not see these as "bad habits" but as "privileges". Some of our contractors have been so used to relying on government contracts that they do not even think of competing overseas. Worse, they then sub-let their contracts, which only inflate the costs of construction but some of them are so powerful politically it is difficult to see how Abdullah can change their mindset and attitude.
Former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad spent two decades cajoling, threatening and even crying, but nothing has changed. He was bold and direct, hurting the feelings and sensitivities of many, but he could afford to do so because he was already politically entrenched.
A year after his retirement, my colleagues and I met Dr Mahathir. When we asked him about unemployed graduates, he asked why this situation only affected the Malay graduates. The reasons, he said, were simply because they chose the wrong courses and also because many could not speak English.
"I remember we got companies to hire unemployed graduates and pay them RM400 each but when they got the job, they refused to do anything because it was not their line and they didn't want to learn. They were just marking time. Obviously, these people do not have the right attitude towards work," he said in that interview.
Abdullah is certainly aware of the problems. He has identified the ills but it would not be easy for him to eradicate these addictions. And he has to do this without risking his political hold.
Getting rid of the crutches is difficult but trying to stop these addictions is going to be even tougher.